Half of low-income communities have no ICU beds

A new Penn study says policies that facilitate hospital coordination are urgently needed to mitigate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new Penn Medicine study sheds light on yet another reason why the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately killing the poor: Residents in low-income neighborhoods lack access to intensive care unit (ICU) beds.

Single hospital bed in an abandoned hallway

While the shortage of ICU beds in the United States has been documented since the pandemic began, the new report, published in the August issue of Health Affairs, is the first to show how starkly a person’s ZIP code affects access to COVID-19 care. Most dramatically, approximately half of communities with the lowest median household incomes (less than $35,000) have zero ICU beds per ten thousand residents age fifty or older, compared with just 3 percent of communities with household incomes of at least $90,000.

ICU, or critical care units, provide life support and high-tech equipment for patients with serious, life-threatening illnesses who require continuous care and monitoring. In the case of COVID-19, patients who are unable to breathe on their own require the ventilator support offered by an ICU to survive. For seriously ill patients, having access to an ICU is the difference between life and death.

The findings suggest that policymakers must take action, such as facilitating hospital sharing and publicly financing specialized resources, says study principal investigator Genevieve P. Kanter, an assistant professor of medicine, medical ethics, and health policy in the Perelman School of Medicine.

“Because low-income communities face higher infection rates of the virus, as well as a higher prevalence of comorbidities—which increases the risk of death from the disease—the low supply of ICU beds compounds the impact COVID-19 will have on these communities,” Kanter says. “Plans should be made for coordinating how hospitals can share these burdens.”

This story is by Lauren Ingeno. Read more at Penn Medicine News.